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Diagnosing Knowledge Management Problems with a Social Innovation Framework

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Diagnosing Knowledge Management Problems with a Social Innovation Framework

May 07, 2019   |  By
Jamie Muskopf | Guest Blogger

Social Innovation can be defined as “the systematic disruption of social norms to effect social change.” As knowledge managers, we are quick to learn that much of the work we do involves not simply designing better processes and using technology advantageously, but disrupting the social and behavioral norms of people in our organizations in ways that enable their successful participation in new processes and technology related changes. Try as we might to introduce smarter and better ways to do business, we could not do business without people - more specifically the socially reinforced behaviors of people.  As a career technologist, knowledge strategist, and the owner of masters of science degrees in both Information Systems and Information and Knowledge Strategy, it was this revelation about behavior that led me to pursue what some might consider an unusual next step toward a Doctor of Social Work.  

Why would someone who once built web applications for universities and helped design decision making displays for Navy commanders decide to enter the field of social work at the doctoral level? Three reasons: (1) To understand how and why social innovation solves problems for our nation’s most vulnerable populations, (2) to offer my skill set to the design of new innovations in social work, and (3) to help knowledge managers and strategists discover a different set of research, science, and frameworks that can lead to innovation in the business world where interest in social enterprise and behavioral values like respect, trust, dignity, and integrity - long-standing tenets of the social work code of ethics - have continued to rise.

As my first term in the University of Southern California’s Doctor of Social Work program comes to an end, I thought I would share a helpful framework called Innovation Dynamics with our knowledge management community. This framework was designed by Andrew Benedict-Nelson and Jeff Leitner and is available in an easily digestible format in their book, See Think Solve: A Simple Way to Tackle Tough Problems. The information in quotations for the remainder of this article are taken from this book unless otherwise noted. In this blog post, we’ll walk through Benedict-Nelson and Leitner’s SEE, THINK, SOLVE approach, applying it to what one might consider a typical knowledge management (KM) problem.  First, we will identify the problem, and then rethink the problem in observable, behavioral terms using their framework.


Your senior leadership is fully on board with a new digital transformation initiative. Not only will you be tasked with moving the organization’s information into a new portal, but you’ll also be moving communication processes that are currently managed in another system, and heavily enabled by email, into a Slack-like tool designed to be used on desktop and mobile. Rather than waiting 24-48 hours for responses to trouble tickets, employees will have access to a searchable database and instant live support via their mobile devices. When this new tool set is finally unveiled, it is a hit! People love the design and the senior leaders love that the organization looks and functions in a more modern way. But you notice something interesting after the first two weeks. Usage has slowed and worse, some departments aren’t using your amazing troubleshooting system at all. Because the portal was a significant financial investment, senior leaders request a report out on its usage at their monthly meetings and you are dreading reporting this frustrating trend. What do you do?

Thanks to user analytics, you know the problem here is that user engagement with our new portal has measurably slowed or ceased. Your job as the knowledge manager is to determine why this is happening and design a solution that will make usage go up so your senior leaders feel like they are getting a return on their investment. Since all systems seem to be functioning as designed, this appears to be a behavioral problem in that users are not interacting as you anticipated they would with the new portal system.

If we use Benedict-Nelson and Leitner’s Innovation Dynamics framework, we can begin to understand how to SOLVE the problem, but first we need to SEE the problem through six innovation lenses. The lenses through which we will make our behavioral observations are as follows:

  1. Actors: These are the people or groups of people involved in the problem. First order, second order, and missing actors all play a role here and it is your job to identify who they are. First order actors in our KM problem are people in departments that do not seem to be using the system. Second order actors might be the peers of those people in other departments or the supervisors and managers of those users. Missing actors might be trainers or customer support people who have not reviewed the new tools with the first order actors.
  2. History: According to Benedict-Nelson and Leitner, “history is a collection of stories about the problem’s past - the official stories, the unofficial stories, the half-truths, and the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me stories.” In our KM problem’s past, people used different systems to get support and do their work before we switched to the new portal. Some people loved the old way of getting things done - maybe the 24-48 hour wait bought them time to do more or maybe they enjoyed a different way of interacting with support. You will have to uncover those stories that influence the behaviors leading to use patterns you are seeing in a particular department.
  3. Limits: These are the “formal, explicit rules that influence how people behave in relation to a problem”. Could it be that in a department that isn’t using your new portal there is a rule against the use of mobile devices? Are users only able to access the portal at certain times in the day because they work outside of the office? Is there a supervisor who has created a rule that interferes with the use the new portal? These formal, explicit rules, or limits, are worth investigating, if you want to determine how to change the behavior of low or no portal usage.
  4. Future: “The collection of people’s expectations about how a problem will turn out”. In our KM problem, some users think that if enough people keep using the old system they won’t be forced to use the new system because they assume the company will sustain the older resources.  Some users may not believe the information in the portal will be valuable to them and that using it will not make a difference in their own job performance. How do expectations about the future keep your problem in place?
  5. Configuration: This is how people make sense of things using labels and categories. In the case of our KM problem, do the people who are not using the new portal organize their tasks or work in a certain way? What can we learn about how they organize themselves or their information that can inform why they are not using the portal? Have they categorized the portal itself as an optional tool or a must have? These are questions of configuration that can illuminate how people make sense of the portal’s use or non use in their work life.
  6. Parthood: This sixth and final lens tells us that most problems are often related to, or are a part of, other problems. Might a lack of use of the new portal stem from a problem that some users don’t have computers or mobile devices? Could it be because users in a certain part of the organization have not been empowered to do their work in this new way? Discovering the other problems that might exist in relationship to our KM problem can shed light on how and where we need to change behaviors.

Now that we SEE our KM problem through these lenses, we are asked to THINK about the problem in terms of both social norms and deviance.

  • Social norms are “unspoken, informal rules that tell everybody how to behave in social situations.” Here, our social situation is the workplace and we use the six lenses to look at the behaviors in our KM problem to find the norms. For example, if we see the problem (user engagement with our new portal has measurably slowed or ceased) through the lenses of actors and limits, we can identify specific people who are not using our new portal system, and, after speaking confidentially but candidly with those people, learn that that their supervisors have explicitly discouraged users from engaging in the new portal because they themselves are not using it. The social norm here would therefore be that users in department x do not engage in the use of the new portal and the six lenses help us see this is because a supervisor does not use it. This problem might seem “obvious”, but what the innovation framework does is empower us as knowledge managers to explore the problem more deeply, allowing us to engage and observe people in our organization using a more structured set of questions that can help us identify opportunities for innovation.
  • Deviance “is a behavior with the potential to subvert a social norm.” Benedict-Nelson and Leitner insist that deviance not only break the rules and disrupt a social norm, but that it change the rules altogether. Understand the social norm, understand the behaviors that could unseat the rules that keep it in place. Once you identify areas and opportunities for behavioral change, you can begin to ideate on solutions and create a deviant.

This leads us to the SOLVE portion of Benedict-Nelson and Leitner’s framework. How we solve our KM problem requires us to create a deviant, not BE deviants in the traditional sense, but design mechanisms that encourage a deviant behavior in an innovation sense. If we take the problem, (user engagement with our new portal has measurably slowed or ceased), use the lenses to SEE a social norm (users in department x do not engage in the use of the new portal because a supervisor does not use it), we can posit that a deviance would be the supervisor changing his or her behavior to increase portal use within their department. But as Benedict-Nelson and Leitner emphasize, we not only want to disrupt the social norm, we want to change the rules holding that norm in place altogether. We want to understand what makes the supervisor NOT want to use the new portal and how can we change the rules around THIS behavior so that ALL supervisors will be incentivized to use the portal. One deviant innovation might be designing a recognition system that rewards supervisors directly for high departmental use and collaboration, maybe at those monthly meetings where you have to report out to the senior leadership. Perhaps another deviant innovation would be designing a questionnaire or conducting an interview that helps you tailor the new portal to each supervisor’s specific needs, addressing the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) more directly.  

Whatever your proposed innovation, or deviance, it is likely to get the support you need to execute it if you can show that you have investigated your problem using an innovation framework that has been applied, proven, well-researched, and costs nothing to your organization. I hope you will consider Benedict-Nelson and Leitner’s Innovation Dynamics and SEE THINK SOLVE when diagnosing your next major KM problem.

About the Author: Jamie Muskopf has an extensive background in knowledge management and information technology planning across various industries. She says:  "I am at my best when helping organizations turn visions into strategies and successful realities. Whether I'm leading virtual teams, creating and supporting an entirely new department or program at a private university or technology giant, or advising a four-star admiral on decision making displays, I am always energized by serving companies and communities that value learning, measurable results, and most importantly, PEOPLE.

"As an advocate for military families and particularly military spouses, my mission is to diversify and amplify the narrative around military spouses and connect our community to other advocates and resources. My intent is to influence employers, law makers, the Department of Defense, and the personal support networks of military spouses to consider taking actions that give military families more choices around work, dual career management, financial capability and asset building. My hope is that this advocacy and action, specifically in the area of combatting military spouse unemployment and underemployment, will lead to improved career continuity for military spouses, improved legislation, education, and incentives for employers, and higher retention rates for active duty service members with families."

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